Last year, in response to an identified need within the school, I ran a group intervention to create resilience in children.
What is resilience?
Resiliency broadly refers to capacity to cope, problem solve and determine positive outcomes when faced with life’s challenges and stressful events. Resiliency has gained much attention in research currently, which has explored related factors such as positive attitudes, optimism, emotional regulation, and importantly, “the ability to see failure as a form of helpful feedback.” Indicative of this, ‘resiliency’ has also become one of the latest parent psychology ‘buzz’ words, with more parents asking: “what can I do to make my child more resilient?”
So it makes sense, that enough parents had called for this intervention in my school context. But, oh boy, did I drag my feet in this plight can I tell you?
Resiliency groups for kids
Why did I drag my feet? Because, research reviews of group interventions targeting resiliency will tell you that Resiliency Groups simply do not work. Meta-analyses tell us that while your child will enjoy this participation and that they may experience short term relief of symptoms (such as worry or sadness), such groups are not effective in improving or changing your child’s capacity to be resilient.
I could probably hazard a guess about why this may be the case. Resiliency, to me, is temperament based, and while (on a good day), I pip myself as a reasonable psychologist – I can’t fundamentally change your child’s personality. No doubt, a good thing!
However, resiliency has long intrigued me, both professionally and personally. I think because of the inconsistency between research-derived notions of creating resilience in children and the very different personal experience of how I think I arrived at being a resilient person myself. This led me to once making Andrew Fuller (esteemed leader in resiliency frameworks) laugh, when I queried: “doesn’t resiliency come from exposing kids to tough stuff … and letting them figure it out?” My idea flies in the face of current parenting paradigms that appear to favour high levels of intervention, love, support, and resourcing from parent to child. While I can tell you that I had a positive childhood, these ingredients were scant and hence, I have no memory of having been in a situation where my capacity to problem-solve independently wasn’t called into play.
School based resiliency groups
And so, feet dragging / against my professional knowledge and personal ideas: I ran a Resiliency Group to build resilience in children. I borrowed some strategies from my respected virtual mentors, Maggie Dent and Andrew Fuller, but truthfully – I made it up. I worked on principles of emotional literacy, social communication and belonging. All good things for kids to learn, but nonetheless – already proven by research to have little effect in promoting resiliency.
Then in sixth session, when group trust was established, I ventured into: Failure Exposure. “Okay, kids let’s start differently … tell me something that you lost at this week?” [crickets]. I used all the synonyms I had: “…. Something you failed at? Really messed up? Came last at? … Maybe, got wrong?” [more crickets]. Then, really interesting – the children began to share what they had won at in the last week.
No kid in my group apparently had any exposure or affinity with failure, or, they lacked confidence in discussing this.
Okay, parents – let’s unpack this: When did words like failure / lost / last / lose / wrong / etc., become dirty words? When did we start to think our kids so fragile that exposure to such words would irreparably damage them? And pragmatically, can I tell you how hard it is to teach a whole class of kids that I have an “I only win” mentality??
Building resiliency from failure
I believe that kids are born resilient. And I think that some of our current parenting ideas and practices are corrosive to that natural resiliency. Often parents will talk to me about not being sure when to intervene in their child’s problem. But by current parenting, intervention seems to translate to ‘fixing the problem’ for their child.
Let me take a minute, to genuinely and collaboratively empathise: I am right there beside you in my fierce love of my children and the discomfort of sitting back as a parent, and watching your children figure it out and be exposed to tricky, uncomfortable things. But trust me: they need failure to thrive.
How to teach kids to thrive:
- In my house, we rejoice in roaring: “Narp, you’re wrong!” Fortunately, I’m bilingual in Bogan so I can really twang this at my 3- and 5-year-old sons, who roar it right back. Nowhere in the world will your child (or you) ever only be right – so take the shame and fear out of the word via laughter and light.
- Run a highlighter through anything you royally fudge as a parent. If I spill, break, drop, ruin, etc., anything – I’ll call the kids in to show them (“look what mum totally screwed up!”) and then show them how to fix it (problem solve). This takes the fear out of getting things wrong.
- Play board games (like Snakes’n’Ladders) that have rapid exposure to winning and losing. Stop creating games where everyone wins. This has no ecological validity (real life application).
- Take the fear out of failure. I’d love to see ‘errorless learning’ replaced by ‘embedded error’ learning in school curriculum, where kids are taught to work back from problems/failure/accidents.
- Reward effort not outcome, e.g., “Yes, I’m proud you came first, but I’m prouder of the effort you put in to make that happen.”
- Call losing “losing.” It’s not coming second, it’s not “everyone’s a winner.” And teach children to celebrate other winners. By no means is this a quick learning process for kids! It’s up there with ‘learning to share.’ So sit in with this being a long and tricky learning curve (e.g., I’m still not entirely okay with the All Blacks losing, for the record).
- Teach kids to expect and name all those big ugly feelings (fear, doubt, jealousy, anger, shame, disappointment, etc. that can come with trying and failing (Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) is an excellent framework for this). Talk about these emotions as normal and even, necessary in helping us to move from one situation to the next. For example, “In order to learn to swim, you’re going to experience frustration and boredom at times, but it means by summer, you’ll be able to swim independently on our beach holiday.”
- Importantly, teach kids to breathe and problem-solve. This is very different from solving the problem for them. It is critical that resilient children start to develop ownership in the problem-solving process. You can scaffold this process by asking: “Okay, so you lost today, and that hurt … but what do you think you could have done differently?”
- Demonstrate resiliency yourself: “Mum went for a new job today kids, and I didn’t get it. I feel sad and disappointed because I was looking forward to doing something more interesting and earning a bit more money. But, what I learnt was that I need to do is to improve x skill area, so that when I go for the next interview, I might be more successful.”
- Don’t intervene too early. Many parents (myself included) struggle to know when to intervene in their child’s problems and level of risk can be hard to gauge. There are obvious risk areas that require rapid, parent intervention and protection. But for the less clear situations, sitting with your child’s discomfort in figuring it out can often mean sitting with your own discomfort as a parent. Talking to a supportive other to know when to intervene at these times may be really handy.
In my opinion, we learn our best from our mistakes; as humbling, shameful, anxiety provoking, and embarrassing as those moments can be, they serve as powerful experiences for in vitro learning with opportunity to cope, problem-solve and reorganise that moment into potentially positive information. You can’t put that into a group. But you can take naturally occurring tragedies/accidents/mistakes/traumas in life and show your children how important it can be to fail in order to thrive.
“10 Ways to Create Resilience in Children” is a guest post from Dr Rachell Kingsbury – Guidance Counsellor (Clin. Psych & Clin. Neuropsych MAPS) and mum of two boys.